January 21, 2016 12:21 pm The Case For Spirituality
One of the hats I wear is that of a spiritual counselor and religious educator. Combining my background in developmental psychology with my faith, I have developed a series of talks I call “Parenting in Partnership with God.” I was therefore delighted to make the acquaintance of a developmental psychologist who has brought the importance of spirituality in a child’s life into the mainstream. In her book, The Spiritual Child, Lisa Miller documents a boatload of research that points to the contribution that a personal relationship with a loving and guiding higher power – be it God, Spirit, nature, or the universe – has on a child’s successful navigating of the challenges involved in growing up.
Pointing to an exciting body of recent neurological research, she states that we, as a species, are wired for seeking empathic connection with one another and with a higher power and that this capacity is present in the youngest of children. It is a capacity, however, that needs nurturing. Children who grow up in an environment that nurtures it develop a worldview of hope, optimism, self-esteem, and resilience, and an attitude of respect and empathy toward others. As teenagers, they are 40% less likely to use abusive substances, 60% less likely to become seriously depressed, and 80% less likely to have dangerous or unprotected sex. And, if that’s not enough for you, they also do better in school. In a direct communication, she added that these statistics are even more extreme in Fairfield County where there is an ethos in many of our schools and in our culture at large that praises cutthroat competition and scoffs at the underdog. Interviews with teenagers at one of our local high schools revealed that the two characteristics that most predicted popularity for a girl were her weight and being a “mean girl.” For a boy, they were prowess at sports and success at exploitation of girls! The value on slimness and athletic success is, of course, no surprise but the overt valuing of meanness and exploitation of others shocked me.
Where does this cynicism come from? No wonder our teens suffer from depression and turn to drugs and alcohol! This cynicism is not an inevitable characteristic of adolescence nor is it evidence of what human nature is “really like.” On the contrary, Miller cites a large body of recent research on young children that points to an inborn propensity toward empathy, “right action,” and the desire to be helpful, giving, contributing, and sharing. My own experience confirms this. As a teacher of preschool children, I can safely say that cynical values are not yet present in the preschoolers I have seen. The “popular” children in preschool are those who show empathy for others and seek positive human connection. Other girls react to “mean girl” behavior with moral outrage and disdain. They have the courage to say “You’re not my friend anymore,” and turn to more congenial companions. So what happens between preschool and high school to change this? It’s not news that the pressure for competitive success and the frenzied life style that this generates are to blame for a change in values and for the anxiety over self worth that leads to the terrible statistics on substance abuse, dangerous behaviors of all kinds and depression.
Is there anything we can do to counter this? It is Miller’s thesis that because natural tendencies toward positive values are inborn, all we have to do is to nurture them. In a very broad definition of spiritual parenting that overlaps considerably with the concept of unconditional love, Miller describes the home atmosphere and conscious parenting style that keeps them alive and helps them grow. “The status of your own spirituality,” she assures us, “is not a worry here.” “Spirituality’s very nature is abundant love that cannot be measured or assessed for adequacy.” She urges parents to be transparent to their children, to share their own challenges and how they relied on their own “inner compass” to deal with them. She encourages family rituals such as “gratitude ceremonies” and taking time together to connect with nature. She stresses being conscious of emotions and talking about them, especially repairing rifts in relationship.
Whether you are religious or not, I highly recommend this book to all parents who are consciously looking for ways to help their children develop the resources to grow up with inner strength and the capacity for healthy loving relationships in our twenty-first century world.
Carol Tolonen is a developmental psychologist and parenting coach. She is trained as a psychotherapist and as a spiritual counselor. She has 26 years experience teaching science and outdoor education to the children at Putnam Indian Field School.